The tango is a form of dancing that originates in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It is a popular dance form that has spread internationally since its inception in the early nineteenth century. As with all cultural forms, there is a distinctive history and style that accompanies this form of expression. The very creation and performance of tango are political acts. The tango flourishes in South America and in Europe. The tango culture is also quite popular in North American and Asia. There are, for example, multiple tango festivals that occur in Turkey, a country that is both in Asia and in Europe. The paper will discuss the cultural expression of tango, a form of music and dance, as well as the political circumstances under which it was created and the ones it expresses.
The tango occurs mostly in partners, typically one man and one woman. The tango originated in marginalized areas of social interaction beginning around the 1880s. Men who congregated in brothels, bars, socialized, gambled, and participated in other such related deviant behaviors, developed and practiced these dances together as a way to prepare for impending social interaction with women. When the tango style of dance and song first began, the lyrics were especially explicit and heavy with sexual connotations. As the dance gained in popularity, moving into mainstream tastes as well as international tastes, the lyrics underwent massive change with regard to subject matter, choreography, and presentation.
Music is a form of art. One of the many functions of art is to express experience. Some of the most celebrated forms of music are those that at the time there new, were considered radical, dangerous, or otherwise threatening because those forms of music communicated the experience and the creativity of (often) marginalized and disenfranchised groups. Art and specifically music are often ways that human beings express their feelings. Music and art are avenues by which people express their feelings, their experiences, and their situations that they struggle with or that test their characters. In cultures that are authoritarian, conservative, or otherwise severely restrictive, forms of expression such as music is the only space where oppressed individuals feel free.
Music is one of a rare few universal languages in the world such as love and laughter. One does not necessarily need to understand the language of the words spoken or sung in a piece of music in order to enjoy and be moved or touched by it. Studies in areas such as acoustics, physics, and neuroscience demonstrate the many ways human brains and animal brains react to music. Music triggers memories; music triggers pleasurable endorphins and other hormones in the brain. A method of treatment for stuttering is to sing the words rather than say them. Many children learn mathematics and physics with great facility when they additionally play a musical instrument such as the piano, as there are many related concepts and patterns among them. An effective technique for studying information is to put vital information to the tune of a familiar song. Consider how many television theme songs, commercial jingles, and songs the average person knows.
When we stop to consider how much of our memory is dedicated to music, we see a glimmer of the power music has over people. There have even been studies that show that animals such as elephants, dogs, birds, and more not only respond in similar ways to humans to music, but also enjoy it and some of them play music, too.[footnoteRef:0] Music is power. Music reaches us on conscious and unconscious levels. For these reasons and more, musical forms such as the tango, that stem from social and political upheaval or tension are so popular (locally and internationally) and yet also so threatening to the mainstream cultures that oppress the originators of the music and directly contributed to their unjust conditions. [0: National Geographic. (2012) Thai Elephant Orchestra. Available from http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0510/feature5/audio.html. ]
To people outside of the Argentine culture, history, and political conditions, the experience and the meaning of the tango music and dance will greatly differ from the Argentine experience. In North America and Europe for example, tango music and dance is characterized as very romantic, deliberate, and yet carefree. This is not the case for the Argentine people who conduct the dance and perform the music with more gravity and intention because of the form's roots in their history and its connection to their national identity:
For Argentines, this dance is deadly serious. In the tango, as in their personal lives and their politics, they tend to dwell on real or imagined affronts. In response, they attempt to seek out and affirm self-definition. They resort to elaborately staged behavior as a way of confronting the result of their search -- a self-definition whose very essence is doubt. The tango pro-claims this doubt and reveals the intensity and depth of Argentine feelings of in-security, but it also insists that an aggressive facade should betray no hint that it could have arisen from an anguished sense of vulnerability. (Taylor, Tango, 1982)
Tango music and dance is an expression of experience and freedom, yet within its execution there is a contradictory restraint that refers to the tension of expression of the politics of Argentina. Latin America has been a prominent figure in the political system of American for many decades. For most of the 21st century, Argentina has been engaged in a war over the privatization of water all over the country, but particularly in poor, rural areas of the Andes Mountains. Tango is an expression of the tension of the people who desire to have more control over their lands and better representation in their government, yet expresses the desire for unification as a people and a culture. Tango music expresses a form of cultural longing and angst and is itself a symbol of political strife and contemplation:
Tango fans in particular pass time constructing complex personal philosophies of life, suffering, and love-philosophies that surprise outsiders who do not expect such elaborate abstractions as common themes of popular culture. (Taylor, Tango, 1982)
As aforementioned, tango music is a reflection and expression of changes in political conditions and climate in Argentina beginning toward the later 19th century, persisting in the 20th, and continuing to flourish in the 21st. Again, the Argentines who originated this dance were on the outskirts of society living outside of the mainstream culture. There was resistance by the upper classes and the mainstream to the tango music, dance, and culture in the early stages. Yet over time as many people around the world well know, tango is synonymous or iconic of Argentina:
Although tango originated among the low working-class sectors of Argentina's Rio de la Plata region in the 1880s, it was only after it achieved fame in the world's cultural capitals in the 20th century that it became popular throughout Argentina. Moreover, this reintroduction of tango also brought with it new ideas about the social and moral meanings of dancing… (Reed, The Politics and Poetics of Dance, 1998)
Tango began on the outside of the mainstream as an expression of political unrest and dissatisfaction, then grew to become a symbol of the country in the world's imagination. When people think of Argentina, the tango is one of the first cultural artifacts that come to mind, generally.
The transformation of the gaucho and the tango into Argentine icons belongs to a broader transatlantic history of national identity "reformation" in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries…Thus, while the gaucho and the tango would themselves come to be seen as consummately Argentine, the historical processes that propelled them together to the center of national self-definition around 1900 were not specific to Argentina. As Thomas C. Holt observes, "the social and economic transformations of the world capitalist system at the dawn of the twentieth century formed a common template for reimagining the nation on both sides of the Atlantic." (Bockelman, Between the Gaucho and the Tango, 2011)
Readers can infer from the statement above that the times produce the cultural forms and the times transform those forms into parts of a country's national identity. These same processes of cultural expression and movement into the mainstream can additionally be said for music forms such as hip hop. It too is a type of music and culture that originated from a marginalize group in a highly urbanized area to express political and social struggle and stifling. It was a form that was once detested and ridiculed by mainstream culture and now it is a worldwide influence & cultural phenomena.
There are variations on the dance style of the tango. Some of the variations include Salon tango, Tango orillero, and Tango canyengue. Despite the variations of the tango, there are some moves, formations, and sequences that are fundamental to all forms of the tango. Tango is a dance of the embrace. Many of the dance…